Near field communication, the wireless technology that’s forever been poised to break out, may finally get the big push it needs. Code pulled from two iPhone (s aapl) prototypes suggest that upcoming iPhones will have an NFC controller connected to the power management unit, according to 9to5Mac.
There is still a chance that the next iPhone doesn’t include NFC support, but with more and more competing devices, including the latest iPhone rival, the Samsung Galaxy S III, featuring it prominently, it sounds very plausible that Apple is ready to incorporate the new tech. Apple being Apple, it doesn’t throw in technology just for the sake of it, so it would need to have a vehicle for the technology. The first use of that could be in Passbook, the upcoming iOS 6 app that lets people store tickets, boarding passes and loyalty cards as barcodes and could be used in conjunction with NFC for tap-and-go actions. Apple did not mention NFC support with Passbook, but many believe the two could work together, eventually giving Apple a mobile payment tool that could connect to its millions of iTunes accounts.
Again, I’ll believe it when I see it, but as I’ve written before, I think Apple would provide a huge lift to NFC. Apple enjoys a large developer community and by incorporating an NFC chip into its devices, it could help spark the creation of a lot of new applications based on the short-distance technology. We would have to see how Apple wants to control access to the chip, but if it opened things up, developers could really use their imagination.
Also, Apple has a large network of physical stores that could serve as showcases for the technology. That’s something that most handset manufacturers don’t have. Education is still a key hurdle for NFC but Apple, more than any other hardware manufacturer, has figured out how to make technology upgrades relevant to uses. The stores could serve as classrooms where people learn firsthand how to tap and go and why they should consider using it.
For Apple, the potential to be a big payment player is significant. If it can tie the NFC chip to its more than 250 million credit cards stored in iTunes, it could start with a huge base of potential customers, more than PayPal (s ebay) or any of the other NFC competitors such as Google Wallet (s goog) or ISIS. But pursuing payments right away may not be Apple’s first target. That’s because it’s a complicated business and there are still a lot of retail locations that aren’t ready to handle NFC transactions. Apple could still find a lot of use for NFC, including transferring content between devices, obtaining local marketing offers from signs to physical entry into buildings.
I think it will take the backing of a big manufacturer to really jump start NFC. Samsung is now taking the lead on the Android side, showing off different uses for NFC in the Samsung Galaxy S III. There’s the S Beam feature, which uses Wi-Fi direct along with NFC to transmit bigger types of files to another phone at up to 300 Mbps. It also introduced Tectiles, programmable NFC stickers that can make NFC really easy to use for consumers. I don’t know that Apple cares about falling behind Samsung on NFC since the tech is still new to many consumers, but I think it has the power to be an even bigger catalyst for the technology if gets behind it. If it waits another iPhone cycle to deploy NFC, it risks missing out on some of the great learnings and consumer feedback that can happen in working with the technology.
Personally, I’d like to see Apple finally pull the trigger on NFC. It has been rumored for some time and Apple has even applied for patents on NFC technology. It might not use the term “NFC” to market the technology but to build in support for it in its phones would be a huge endorsement and would provide an opening for a lot of innovation.